The BRU Roars: Mr. President, Enforce, Restore, Expand Our Civil Rights

Streetsblog estimates 250 people were at the rally at any given point. The BRU put the total number between 350-400 as people came and went from the rally as it went on.

We’re the BRU. This is our fight
Mass transportation is a human right
We want 50 cent fares and $20 passes
‘cause mass transportation belongs to the masses
BRU Chant, heard yesterday.

Hoping to leverage the importance of minority and lower income voters to President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign, the Bus Riders Union (BRU) launched “a national campaign calling on President Obama to stand for the civil rights of Black and Latino transit riders in Los Angeles,” in front of City Hall’s west entrance yesterday afternoon.

The BRU’s campaign attracted the support of twenty allied organizations including the East Los Angeles Community Council, Koreatown Immigrants Workers Alliance, and SEIU United Service Workers West; each of whom had representatives sprinkled in the sea of yellow-t-shirt clad supporters wearing their own organizations’ colors.  A full list of supporting organizations is at the end of this story, after the jump.

Disappointed that a  Federal Transit Administration Civil Rights Title VI review didn’t roll back recent service cuts, the campaign is aiming over the FTA’s head. The campaign appeals directly to Obama to, in their words, order the agency to restore one million hours of service. In the wake of a recent announcement that Metro is extending hours on Metro rail and Bus Rapid Transit late into the night, the BRU also wants to know why bus riders aren’t seeing a return of bus service eliminated over the last four years.

Barbara Lott-Holland, co-chair of the BRU said, “This is a major civil rights test case for President Obama. With clear evidence that the nation’s second largest mass transit agency violated federal civil rights law, the case offers President Obama an important opportunity to bring justice to 500,000 Black, Latino, and Asian-Pacific Islander bus riders who have been slammed by service cuts and fare increases.”

Even if the President wanted to over-rule the FTA’s decision on Metro’s service policies, it’s doubtful he has the legal right to do so.  Streetsblog spoke with a legal expert familiar with the FTA’s recent review of Metro’s civil rights policies, who asked not to be identified.  This lawyer said that direct intervention by the President overruling a report by the FTA would create legal problems for the President if Metro opposed his decision.  If Metro accepted the President’s oversight, it would create a “terrible” legal precedent.  After all, would the BRU want Mitt Romney making decisions on what kind of transit service Metro should provide?”

Despite the t-shirts and banners with the president’s picture, the real target of yesterday’s rally could be Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.  Obama chose Villaraigosa to Chair of the Democratic National Convention in September. Attacking Villaraigosa’s progressive bona-fides, especially on his signature issue, could be an attempt to embarrass the mayor into taking a proactive role in restoring the slashed service hours.

“Sadly, Mayor Villaraigosa, as Chair of the L.A. Metro Board, has failed to take a clear stand for civil rights and for the restoration of the deep service cuts that are so devastating for the urban poor,” said Sunyoung Yang, lead organizer with the Bus Riders Union. “Will he allow black and latino communities to be pushed to the brink of economic survival and displaced from their own neighborhoods in order to pursue a transportation agenda that gentrifies the city and fattens the pockets of corporate developers and the construction lobby? Or will the Mayor take a stand for civil rights and for the restoration of one million hours of bus service?”

The mayor’s office declined to comment on the story, but recent comments made in Streetblog’s exclusive interview with Villaraigosa paint a picture of a mayor concerned about the cost and quality of local bus service.  When asked directly about his future plans, Villaraigosa commented, “My goal is to convince the Congress we need to spend more money on operations. That’s going to take more time.”

Whether the BRU can make enough noise to get the President’s attention has yet to be proven.  But regardless of one’s view of the BRU or this campaign, yesterday’s rally marked the first attempt by a group outside of Washington, D.C. to aggresively insert the plight of transit riders into the 2012 presidential debate.  BRU leaders listed allies in other cities: Atlanta, Chicago, New York and others. They’re going to need all the help they can get to be heard through the white noise of a presidential campaign.

Endorsers of the “Mr. President, Enforce, Restore, Expand Our Civil Rights” Campaign to date:

ACUSLA – Association of Communities United of South Los Angeles

CADRE – Community Asset Development Re-Defining Education

CHIRLA – Coalition of Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles

CLEAN Carwash Campaign,

Coalition for Educational Justice

Comité Pro-Democracia de Mexico

Communities for a Better Environment

D.R.E.A.M. Team Los Angeles

Committee of Ex-Bracero Workers

East Los Angeles Community Corporation

Inner City Struggle

Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance

Los Angeles Community Action Network

Restaurant Opportunities Center-Los Angeles

SEIU United Service Workers West

Union de Vecinos

Youth Justice Coalition


  • No

    Their ridiculous chants and hardline stances make these guys a joke.  They undermine rational transit advocates by throwing racism into the forefront, with disregard for the notion that people of all races both use and need transit. 

  • The 50¢ fare and $20 pass idea is ridiculous. There’s no major city in the nation (world?) with fares this low, and there’s be no money to pay for it. They’d just pay for it in higher taxes.

    Does the BRU not understand that rail service going through Watts, Compton, East LA, South LA, and Crenshaw serves many of the lower-income areas? Yes, the Westside subway is serving a much higher income residential area, but it’s also serving low-income riders who work or study in those areas. This should never be a bus vs. rail issue, but a transit effectiveness issue.

    We surely can’t cut all bus service to pay for new rail lines and more new rail lines… the busses and rail need to worth together and the fact that they are so hard against rail is what makes the BRU more of obstructionists than transit advocates.

  • Dan W.

    Fortunately, the President has more important things to worry about then the rantings of the so-called Bus Riders “Union”.

    The BRU should have its block of speaking time at Metro meetings eliminated so it has the same one minute to speak that every other organization has. They are more transit obstructionists than transit advocates.

  • I actually would be happy to pay higher taxes for a 50 cent fare and $20 pass, and I think the BRU would too (I hope).  But if we’re going that direction, we should make the fare free and eliminate the need for passes!  Taxes are generally a less regressive way to raise funds than user fees on transportation, and once the fare is low enough, it probably raises less money than it costs to maintain the machinery to collect it.  The only problem I can think of would be if businesses or individuals relocate outside the city or county to avoid the tax.  (Not counting the problem of getting the tax passed!)

    But asking Metro to do that is clearly the wrong way to go – Metro doesn’t have the means of raising its own funds by other means, the way the city and county could.

  • Davistrain

    Not sure where I saw it, but a while back someone published a photo of a group of BRU members–riding the Red Line subway that they supposedly despise.

  • The wide reach of (albeit very lefty) groups listed is a product of the rank and file getting chits to redeem by turning out at the events of other groups. BRU members (with their banners and phalanx of yellow shirts) are a regular feature of protests and rallies for left causes in L.A. And thus “we were there for you, now how about helping us?” helps draw a large group of groups when it is time to hold a mass BRU event.

    BRU also has a contingent who don’t go to the monthly meetings etc. but will turn out a few times a year for a mass event. Our best guess is the actual membership is in the 200-300 range with a lot of attrition which is why the staff (plus students from the training program) relentlessly troll buses for fresh members.

    And heck the Times did cover the event. But how about TV? In the heryday there would be lots of cameras for BRU events. The novelty has faded.

  • I saw Univision, but no English language stations.  It was really the best attended BRU event that I’ve been too, but I certainly haven’t attended all of them.

  • Frank Boothe

    Why hasn’t LA.StreetsBlog endorsed the BRU struggle?

  • Frank Boothe

    The BRU doesn’t get a speaking block. They may send 3 to 7 speakers in a row up on an issue, but no blocks of time. The big blocks of time go to John Walsh and Arnold Sacks. Each spoke a minimum of 20 times at the Metro Board meeting today.

  • Anonymous

    And you wouldn’t need turnstiles!

  • Anonymous

    They ride the Purple Line from their offices above the Wiltern Theatre, IIRC.  In part because Eric Mann’s BMW isn’t big enough for all of them to ride in.

    Here ya go: 

  • Anonymous

    Because they lost most people with this flyer?: 

  • calwatch

    Hey I’m not a big fan of the BRU either, but let’s be fair – they have really lasered in and sharpened their pencils over the last few years. They pulled a coup in getting SOCATA and other groups behind the Wilshire bus lanes. They will never get their consent decree back, but they did thank Villaraigosa at the 2008 fare hearing for putting forth a lower fare increase than was proposed. It turned out that raising the day pass to four times base fare had a visible effect on lowering ridership, such that MTA has not yet announced whether they will increase the day pass back to $6 come August 1 when the rollback expires. 

  • calwatch

    That’s because they use the 60 second hate rule. I would prefer the MTA Board go to Board of Supervisors style, where you get three minutes combined for anything you want to talk about on the agenda, and three minutes for any non agenda item. Since most people are there for one or two issues it works out better than 15 times of 60 second hate.

  • calwatch

    The FTA analysis is correct, though, in that every area got service cuts. It only calls for no disproportionate impact, and not protecting one race’s buses over another. The real harm got done in the 2003-2006 era, when lines started to get chopped up (lines like the 685, 290, 292, 222, 611, 612, etc.) The service cuts eviscerated some routes, like Line 485, that serve white communities much more so than the lines in minority communities. Rail is demonstrably much more reliable than bus, with a 98% on time performance despite the Blue Line fiascos. While any look at the street or Nextbus can show you 720’s bunching up three or four at a time through Downtown, the Red Line will never bunch up. 


    METRO should ban any BRU member from RAIL and Rapid lines.  Until they ride Buses exclusively they should not be taken seriously, which in any case they are not.

  • You know, I’ve wondered the same… why can’t we just make public transit free for all? It’s be amazing, but it’s also pretty impossible. 

    I’m an infrastructure guy and think that if the gov’t provided nothing but infrastructure, for transportation and communication, sewage, roads, internet, transit, that would be pretty good.

    The problem is the government is so multifaceted in other areas that it’s never going to be able to devote all it’s resources to infrastructure like this. 

  • Anonymous

    Metro pays people $100,000 a year to handle all the civil rights stuff. 

    You can make 70 grand by helping to ensure affirmative action is adhered to. 

    Metro sure is racist. 

    BRU itself makes bank shaming Metro and anyone else who doesn’t fall in line. As always, follow the money. I agree that Wall Street and government are corrupt, but so are these so-called race/class-based identity politics advocacy groups. But then, the race/class veneer is just a smokescreen. Find out what proportion of the cost to operate a bus for an hour is the operator’s wages and benefits and you’ll figure out what the BRU is really about. 

    “Barbara Lott-Holland, co-chair of the BRU said, “This is a major civil rights test case for President Obama. ”

    Actually, it’s not. Obama is fighting to become the first sitting president since FDR to be reelected with unemployment above 8%. His test is the economy, not civil rights. Not that he’s really done anything substantive for people of color. Unemployment for young black males is almost 50% under the same old tired progressive policies and the failed War on Poverty, which has done more harm than good ( ). Black unemployment in general is double the general rate. With all the special programs designed to increase black employment that exist, you wonder if it’s really about civil rights anymore. 

    Obama may be reelected based on warm fuzzies alone, equal pay for women (a complete farce of an issue if I ever saw one) and vague calls for justice for certain groups, which are less about calls to action and more about platitudes. He speaks a good progressive game but his record is as far right as a Democrat could go ( ). It doesn’t help that Republicans are running a tosser.

    The best vote people of any color could make is for Gary Johnson.

    “Even if the President wanted to over-rule the FTA’s decision on Metro’s service policies, it’s doubtful he has the legal right to do so.”

    This is exactly right. There is no reason the federal government should be getting involved in what LA County does with its transit system, for better or worse. The feds are already getting ready to get involved with transit on a safety level. Can’t wait to see what the FTA has to say about crashworthiness standards. Are our subway cars going to become bank vaults on wheels like Acela? Time will tell.

  • Anonymous

    Steven, we are so hopped up on social programs, corporate welfare and military, which are entrenched and pretty much nonnegotiable, that we haven’t the resources for infrastructure.

    Even Metro is something of a welfare agency. On top of the already subsidized base fares (farebox recovery = ~30%), there are discounts for senior/disabled/medicare riders, college students and K-12 students. There is also a rider relief program in which eligibility is based on income and household size. There is also something called an Immediate Needs program. 

    I’m not saying these programs should necessarily go away, but it should be noted what we already do to help people in need. It’s almost never acknowledged and I wonder why.

    “The only problem I can think of would be if businesses or individuals relocate outside the city or county to avoid the tax.”

    The only problem? That’s a funny way to put it. It sounds to me like a major flaw.


Spinning a Civil Rights Complaint

Late last week, most likely in response to a report by the Bus Riders Union and their community allies, a letter from Metro CEO Art Leahy dismissing the Civil Rights complaints of the BRU appeared on The Source.  The letter basically announced that the Title VI complaints against the agency announced last Spring were dismissed, […]